Literature is full of midlife crises, but few characters have as good a reason to indulge as Kathleen Moran. The mother of four has nothing but contempt for her alcoholic husband, who likes to boast about his imaginary exploits at the corner pub; her part-time job is drying up and money is tight; one of her children is in prison for killing a police officer; and there's a giant hole in her living room ceiling where a soldier put his foot through it while searching her home. Said home is located in Belfast in 1979, and her son is a member of the Irish Republican Army.
This Human Season, Louise Dean's second novel, is set during the run-up to the hunger strikes in the Maze prison that killed 10 strikers and were part of a worsening wave of terrorist violence during Northern Ireland's 30-year "Troubles." The bleak, grimly funny novel is the story of two 39-year-olds, Moran and one of the prison guards in her son Sean's H-block, and gives new meaning to the phrase scatological humor.
John Dunn spent 22 years in the British Army, including three tours in Northern Ireland. He figures this has been ample training for life as a guard. The smell is the first indication that he may have underestimated his new line of work. As part of the "dirty blanket" protests, IRA prisoners striking for a return of their political status smeared their own excrement all over the walls of their cells. A strong stomach is a requirement for his job. (It's also a requirement for readers of this book. After a few chapters, I wanted to hit the showers.)
The two protagonists' only connection is Sean, and their story lines never intersect. Instead of cobbling together fictional contrivances, Dean draws parallels between the two that strengthen each half of the novel. Both are preoccupied with their teenage sons (Dunn has a boy Sean's age whom he's never met). The bathroom is the only peaceful place either can locate – Kathleen hides in her soap-scented one at home, while Dunn locks himself in a stall at work to cry over the brutalities he witnesses every day.
Dean, who is English and who conducted extensive interviews for the novel, is dispassionate in her portrayal of both sides of the conflict. There are plenty of crimes to go round, as well as plenty of humanity. She also nails the profane camaraderie of the prison guards as well as she does the kitchen-table talk between Kathleen and her neighbors.
When Dunn starts work he has almost nothing in common with the Metaphysical poet of (almost) the same name. He fell in love with Northern Ireland during his time as a soldier, a fact he calls his "guilty secret."
Dunn signed on at the prison because he was used to following orders, and the pay was good. (It had to be, since the IRA was targeting guards).
In the Army, "there was no personal point of view. There was agreement and silence and both meant agreement in any case. By being there, by wearing the uniform, you were in agreement with it all. You were a fool if you put it on and you were not."
But after a few days in the Maze, Dunn starts philosophizing – an uncomfortable feeling for a man who readily admits that he isn't "deep."
"Was killing educational? Perhaps briefly, as a generation is brief. The young sowed horror in their springtime with high hopes for the crop and it rotted down through a long summer. They harvest grief in the autumn of their lives. And did they believe, even as they held their grandchildren, that there would be an end to it all? After a hard winter killed what was left of them off, it came again, this human season, this springtime of hatred."
Rather than philosophy, Kathleen relies on gallows humor, cigarettes, and alcohol to get through daily life in a war zone. The novel's ready wit offers a lifeline to readers, even as it does its characters. To get back at the British soldiers who search their purses, Kathleen and her neighbor buy the bags that have the most zippers and stuff each compartment with sanitary products.
When the soldiers search her house, ripping up the floorboards with a crow bar and vowing not to leave until they find guns, she tells her 13-year-old, "Liam, show the man your water pistol."
Kathleen's friend Roisin cleans house for one of the few Jewish families left in Belfast. "I wish I was a Jew," she tells Kathleen. "I said to her I might become one myself, just for the peace and quiet."
"This Human Season" builds to a climax in December, which finds Dunn celebrating Christmas with his son for the first time, while Kathleen must endure the first of many without hers.
Dean offers her characters a measure of grace, but alert readers know that the novel ends just as the Troubles began an even more devastating phase. A certain amount of knowledge of history is helpful, since while Dean provides some background, she isn't writing a treatise of either how the Troubles began, or how life in Belfast has improved immeasurably since the 1980s.
"This Human Season" is about dispassionately dissecting both sides of the divide, and doesn't extend forward in time to the days when that chasm will finally be bridged. It's a rare case where a reader can look to the real world for an ending that is happier than the fictional version.
• Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.